Syria and the war in Ukraine

Volunteers stack protective sandbags at the entrance of the subway in the center of Kyiv on March 7, 2022.(Photo: AFP)
A week into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the attempt to understand what is happening politically is still developing.

Analysts grappling with how the status quo on the European continent was so rapidly and comprehensively overturned have looked to Syria, Russia’s last major military intervention, for clues. In doing so, they have consistently linked Moscow’s incursions in both countries to a theory for how Russia’s role in Syria prepared the ground for the Ukraine war.اضافة اعلان

The theory has two variations. The first is that Barack Obama’s inaction on the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in 2013 – when Assad violated Obama’s “red lines” without consequence – made America seem weak, and led, six months later, to Vladimir Putin annexing Crimea.

The second is that Russia, having seen the opportunity to remake the politics of Syria through military means, has attempted to do the same thing a second time – first threatening Ukraine in the hope of bullying the government into concessions, and then, when that did not work, launching a full-scale attack with the aim of regime change.

The trouble with both of these theories is that they omit parts of Russia’s recent history to make the theory work. There is a link between the military missions in Syria and Ukraine, but it is not the one Moscow is often accused of.

In the first case, there is no comparison between America’s president issuing “red lines” in Syria and the hypothetical scenario where an American president issued “red lines” to Russia over Crimea. The threats are not the same. In the first instance, if Obama had decided to enforce those red lines, the maximum he could have tried would have been an attempted decapitation of the Assad regime, for example bombing the presidential palace in Damascus. But enforcing “red lines” on Russia by military force is of a different order: It would inevitably provoke a war between two nuclear-armed adversaries.

In the second case, the idea that Putin felt his actions in Syria offered a green light for an invasion of Ukraine overlooks a decade of military action along Russia’s periphery.

Putin made his reputation as a tough politician in the Caucasus wars – Chechnya was the first conflict he was involved in, almost from the moment he became president. His 2008 lightning war in Georgia – which was over in barely five days – is a much better analogy as a test-run for the invasion of Ukraine than Syria.

It was not that the Russian intervention in Syria convinced Putin he could reorder the politics and future direction of nations by force – he already knew that from Georgia. No, what Syria proved was that he could do that openly, in full view of the world, and it did not matter.

This was Syria’s great lesson to Moscow: That the US-led order, despite being backed by immense military hardware, was fragile. There was no will to enforce it.

Of course, the debacle of Obama’s “red lines” played a pivotal role. But it was also a result of Putin’s constant testing of the boundaries of the West and its appetite for military action.

The missions in Georgia and Crimea were carried out quietly; in Georgia, it was a lightning strike, and in Crimea, the use of “little green men”, Russian soldiers without insignia, gave plausible deniability.

The Syria intervention was not like that. Conducted 18 months after the annexation of Crimea, it took place without pretense. This was the first time that Russia had openly challenged the West, openly using its military hardware to try for an alternative result to what the West wanted. And it worked.

What Russia proved in Syria was that the Vietnam argument – that superpowers would inevitably get bogged down in insurgencies – was not always true. Instead of proving to be Russia’s Vietnam – or a second Afghanistan, after the Soviet defeat in the 1980s –the intervention was in fact a blistering win for Moscow. Russia stabilized the regime and formed a close alliance with Damascus that will last decades, which gave it leverage over Turkey, Israel and Europe. From Moscow’s perspective, a win many times over.

No doubt, Russia’s president is hoping to do the same thing in Ukraine, to reorder Russia’s periphery regardless of the desires of the West.

This is where the analysts who claim that if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine the whole of Europe is under threat are correct. What Putin is seeking to do is to upend the strategic order of the EU. However, he is not trying to usurp that order. The world that Putin imagines is not one where Russia, rather than the US or the EU, sets the global rules. Instead, what he is seeking is something more limited – and precisely because it is more limited, it is more likely to happen.

What Putin is seeking is a way of defying the US-led status quo without consequences, or at least without consequences that Moscow cannot bear.

The invasion of Ukraine does not mean that, in a matter of years, there will be a new Soviet Union stretching across Eastern Europe. But it does make another, limited, war much more likely. If Putin gets away with invading Ukraine and changing the politics of the country while managing to weather the storm of sanctions, it will make many other countries on Russia’s periphery targets.

What Moscow learned in Syria was that the West’s mettle was fragile; he is testing it once again, in the most public way imaginable.

The writer is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
©: Syndication Bureau

Read more Opinion and Analysis